One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.

I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…

At one point during our dialogue, Julie talked about how sympathetic she was to so many of our emphases here on this blog. When we challenge various contemporary fixations on the nuclear family (to the neglect of celibacy and other forms of community), when we confront our own “conservative” self-righteousness, when we celebrate a more robust view of friendship than what you often find in contemporary churches, when we dream about seeing single people being folded into families, and when we celebrate the hospitality that singles both give and receive in their churches, Julie said she wants to cheer us on. But, she asked, why should that vision be tied so closely to a particular understanding of marriage as “male and female” that excludes lesbian and gay people? Why, in other words, do we think there’s a necessary link between a “traditionalist” view of marriage and the “radical” view of friendship we’re trying to promote? Couldn’t the latter actually be just as compatible—or maybe even more compatible—with a “Side A” view of gay relationships?

One of the things I wish I’d said publicly in response is that, truthfully, there is a lot common ground between “Side A” and “Side B” Christians when it comes to radical hospitality and community. Not only have I learned a great deal from “Side A” writers such as David Matzko McCarthy, Eugene Rogers, and Andrew Sullivan about friendship, but I’ve also been the beneficiary of remarkable gifts of friendship and hospitality from my “Side A” friends. To a certain extent, Julie is right: Much of what we talk about here can be appropriated by people with widely differing theological views.

And yet I think there’s another sense in which the answer to Julie’s question goes something like this:

There is a whole Christian architecture or fabric of relationships in which each kind of relationship finds its place and is not the same thing as the other. Marriage is not celibacy, and to try (as some of the Corinthian Christians apparently did [1 Cor. 7:5]) to live as if it were is to go wrong. (“The key,” Oliver O’Donovan once wrote, “to Paul’s famous discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 is his rejection of the concept of an ascetic marriage, a kind of half-way house between marriage and singleness.”)  Likewise, friendship is not marriage, and to try to live as if it were—to confuse it in some way with marriage—is to distort or miss out on the unique gift friendship is, not to mention court disappointment.

In other words, in a traditional Christian view of things, respecting the integrity of specific vocations—like marriage or friendship—is part and parcel of living out those vocations with faithfulness. Chastity in singleness reinforces the dignity of marriage. By refusing sex outside of the marriage covenant, celibacy implicitly honors the sanctity of marriage (Hebrews 13:4), as well as encouraging married Christians to pursue their own form of chastity. And marriages, in turn, can support and buttress the celibate vocation. The point is that all of these forms of faithfulness turn out to be deeply implicated in one another, and to change one—to alter one’s definition of marriage, for example—will have knock-on effects for the others. On the flip side, to try to encourage and defend one—to promote a rich, “thick” practice of committed friendship—is, we hope, to strengthen and undergird all the others.

In short, we don’t see our work here at SF as being only about promoting a certain set of habits and practices around “friendship.” We’re also interested in the whole interlocking architecture of Christian relationships—marriage, parenting, and other relationships, alongside “spiritual friendship.” We’re interested in celebrating friendship because we believe it will strengthen the practice—or, better, the practices (plural)—of traditional Christian faith in all the various ways Christians are called to live it out.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up this thought by talking about one more question that came out of my time at City Church.

11 thoughts on “One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

  1. And that is why I keep reading here. Because it is completely true that the celibacy of single people is important to the Christian ideal of the chaste marriage. I think that is the real separation between Side B and Side A homosexual Christians as well. It’s the same as the difference between heterosexual Christians who believe in Sacramental marriage and those for whom no-fault divorce and serial adultery is not a problem worth preaching against.

    But I find that a very deep chasm to cross. The sexual revolution is succeeding at destroying the human family to a point that 50% of children are born out of wedlock and one out of six children conceived are aborted, not to mention the extreme pain, abuse, and dysfunction caused by divorce for three generations following a divorce.

    I am against same sex marriage- but I’m even more against no-fault divorce. I think if we eliminate no-fault divorce; if we start preaching FIDELITY in marriage, we’ll have a much better leg to stand on. Until we do that, same sex marriage is nothing more than an additional annoyance in a war to destroy the family.

  2. How, specifically would “alter[ing] one’s definition of marriage…have knock-on effects on the others”? I assume by “the others” you mean celibacy, singleness, and friendship. What exactly would be the effects on those three things were same sex marriage to be affirmed?

    • It’s just an extension of the same stuff we saw happening when no-fault divorce was affirmed- an increase in promiscuity and a separation between procreation and sex, leading to more broken families and more abuse. Same sex marriage is not at the top or bottom of the particular slippery slope known as the sexual revolution, and really isn’t all that important- other than for one more battle lost in the war to maintain civilization and humanity.

  3. @hypatia1951, I can’t answer for Wesley, but perhaps it makes sense to ask your question in another manner, namely, what assumption about celibacy, singleness, and friendship would need to be assumed to affirm same-sex marriage?

    I tend to think that the deification of the self combined with the ongoing commodification of sexuality (I’m using this term to denote the way sex has been removed from the constraints of public socio-political life and instead made subject to the whims of the isolated individual) has left us in a place where the right to sexual gratification has been elevated to an ‘inalienable right’. This ‘inalienable right’ is then problematized by part of the culture who want to declare that only certain forms of sex are appropriate (demonizing those whose desires don’t fit the approved form), while the other part of the culture then needs to increasingly affirm all expressions of sexual desire as appropriate.

    Because of this elevation of the right to sexual gratification, more and more, singleness and celibacy become seen as utter denials of what’s viewed as an essential aspect of humanity. I believe it’s this quagmire of assumptions which has driven the need by many to want to legitimize same-sex marriage even if these assumptions are operating only at an unconscious level. As a corollary to the elevation of the rights to sexual gratification, young people are increasingly, via popular media, encouraged to pursue sex at all costs. If all of our erotic energies are then devoted to pursuing sex, we’re less free to direct those energies to tasks like friendship, and service of our neighbor and instead become erotically self-consumed. So, too, with the drive to pursue every desire (be it sexual or not) we as a culture are left confused about what to do when ‘attracted’ to some aspect of a member of the same sex. Is friendship the appropriate expression of that attraction, or should that attraction then be sexualized as we’re so want to do with everything else?

    • Thank you for your response. It helps me understand what is meant by “knock on effects”.

      I understand that if one thinks the right to sexual gratification is inalienable and paramount then all sorts of behaviors are sanctioned, including fornication, adultery, one night stands, and of course same sex acts.

      But couldn’t one have different premises: 1) that most people do best in a family setting, 2) that sexual activity, while NOT absolutely necessary for a good life, is an important/nourishing part of life for most people, 3) that sexual activity is best in marriage. With those premises, same sex marriage could be seen as the best alternative for most gay people–as opposite sex marriage is taken for granted as the best option for most straight ones.

      I agree that cultural overemphasis on sexual expression should be “called out” and the virtues of sublimation rediscovered. However I was puzzled by your question of “what to do if [one is] attracted to some aspect of a member of the same sex…should that attraction be sexualized?” Does this mean gay people are attracted to others of the same sex, but that this is not a sexual attraction unless they “sexualize” it? Or is it that more people today take passing attractions, sexualize and then act on them, short changing singleness, celibacy, and friendship? Wouldn’t that hold true for straights as well? Are gay people somehow more likely to do this?

  4. Like hypatia I question the knock on effect of same sex marriage because as you admit here at SF the idea of spiritual friendship as a ‘thing’ was and still is a lost idea in most every church. And, same sex marriage did not participate in that decline.

    Same sex marriage can be a positive change that will strengthen the fabric of society and church. Same sex marriages are drawing LGBT people out of the margins and into sanctified covenant relationships which honor God. It brings a segment of society which was once completely on the fringes and abhorred as perverted into the mainstream which is honoring their life and contribution to the Kingdom as they are called by God.

    With regards to 1 Corinthians 6, when Paul describes sexuality and sanctification he specifies ‘do not join yourself to a ‘prostitute’ he doesn’t make any clarifying statements about it. Prostitute is the word used. Even if we are in a similar situation today as a result of the sexual revolution it has less to do with LGBT issues and more to do with everyone across the board learning to master their sexuality and the interconnecting relationships we have that make us flourish as human beings.

    So I hope there is more openness to thinking about those specifics. If we try to make connections we must make sure all of our connections are secure. Otherwise it makes me think there is room for the Spirit to move and create space for a greater understanding about sexuality in this day and age.

      • The trouble with that being inherrant in homosexuality is a lack of love as defined in scripture (wanting and working for what is best for the other person). The anti-procreative nature of same gender sex, combined with the health risks involved, makes it contraindicated.

        The problem is if you truly loved the other person, you’d want to help them be heterosexual. And you certainly wouldn’t want to damage children by adopting them into a family that cannot provide both sexes of parents. These are simply not loving acts.

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